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A pile of outgoing mail packages, a screen of unanswered e-mails and a wobbly stack of memos. This employee workstation is all too familiar to many facility executives trying to manage information when involved in large construction projects. And even if information is organized, communicating it — whether that means forwarding an e-mail or photocopying a packet 50 times — can be a time-consuming task.
Online project-management software is one option for getting a company’s paperwork in sync. It thins the load of hard-copy correspondence, makes it easier to import data into personal computers, and allows users to view the same information from cubicles — or miles — apart.
“We’ve all gotten used to using e-mail for that,” says William Tucker, account manager at Bricsnet. But that approach often doesn’t allow the whole team to take advantage of shared information.
Four years ago, Wyndham Hotels launched a project to redesign plans for new hotel sites. The first documents to test a customized software program designed to manage the project were floor plans. Almost immediately the company saved money because those floor plans were no longer shipped via an overnight delivery service across the country. That’s not unusual: Where companies typically see the first savings is with hard costs — things like shipping, faxing and traveling in order to communicate project details.
But the benefits to Wyndham didn’t stop with cost savings. Budget and planning processes were moved online, creating a quick and easy reference for such steps as carpet installation in a multiphase, new hotel project.
“A hotel being able to open its doors one week early or a restaurant being able to open five more locations, that’s a huge benefit to these companies,” says Amar Hanspal, vice president of Autodesk Collaboration Services, which lists Wyndham Hotels among its clients. He points to another recent example — a department-store chain opening 11 stores simultaneously. “For a company to be able to do something like that, they have to be coordinated.”
Online project management can speed construction by tightening the gap between time zones. For example, if a West Coast worker updates a document in the early evening, by the time he or she arrives in the office the next morning, a collaborator in the Northeast may have already viewed it and posted comments.
For a financial corporation, the process of using online project-management software could begin with entering details on a financial acquisition, followed by tenant build-out, in the database.
But with any new idea comes new challenges. A lack of training is one reason that online project-management software doesn’t get implemented. But there are other obstacles.
“There’s always some resistance to change when you bring in a new software package,” says Jay Noonan, director of professional services for Meridian Systems.
There are ways to make the learning curve simpler. Hanspal suggests choosing software that is easy to set up.
Noonan suggests the 80/20 rule: focus on teaching people to use 80 percent of the system at first and save 20 percent of the information for a later date. The 80 percent covers the essential functions of the system; the 20 percent involves advanced system features that are not required to begin using the system but can bog down the implementation process at the beginning because they are harder to learn.
Noonan also says it’s important to develop internal experts, allowing facility staff to tackle snags after the consultants who established the system have left. “The whole goal when we walk out of here is that you know the product,” he says. “We’re never going to know your business better than you do.”
“These things typically start with a couple of champions inside an organization who believe they can do things better,” Hanspal says. “It’s all about convincing others to get on board.” Try selling an overall vision of what the new software will do, emphasizing “quick and easy wins,” he advises. And, “Go step by step, as opposed to going from zero to 60 in five seconds.”
Trying to implement too much technology too fast can be disastrous, says Noonan. Using non-technical jargon to explain the new software is recommended instead.
It’s worth paying attention to specific scenarios that may need explanation — for example, what to do during restricted hours, if there are any, or whether one can log into the system from a construction trailer, says Dave Karpook, product marketing director at Tririga.
While most software can be customized for each user — effectively broadening or narrowing the view of certain topics — it’s true that what might normally be visible only on paper by a few can now be seen by many. That enables facility executives to watch out for project managers accustomed to hiding data or fudging details, either verbally or in short written summaries under the old methods.
Another advantage of managing projects online is the ease with which records can be handled, which is especially important when handling legal documents. And in cases where different levels of management are working on the same project, managing projects online enables supervisors to keep tabs on subordinates simply by clicking a few keys from their computer.
Tucker of Bricsnet says his experience shows that top-level managers look at the big picture while the project handlers are more interested in specific details. He recommends creating automatic e-mail notification and search functions for specific data that each user needs. “Upper-level management is less likely to enter the system, and is mostly looking for notification that something’s gone awry.”
“The bottom line is that the software has to have support from both upper management and those who are going to use it,” says Tucker.
Gaining broad support for the new system is a key challenge. “There has to be an agreement that there is a common good,” Karpook says, adding that the initiator should stress to fellow employees that if things go well, the entire company could profit. “What you really want to do is reach a consensus.” Achieving effective collaboration requires establishing a solid level of trust.
In the end, it’s important to have a coordinated approach to the use of the online project-management software to achieve a workplace that’s in sync. Otherwise, there is the risk of problems: data being entered twice or the wrong data being input into the system.
Kristine Hansen is a writer with experience covering facility technology and property management issues.